By Manus Lenihan
A viral folk song called ‘Rich Men North of Richmond’ by Oliver Anthony has risen to the top of the US charts, even featuring during the Republican Party debates this week.
On its surface, the song poses as an anthem for the working class, protesting at its exploitation at the hands of the ‘Rich Men North of Richmond.’ It’s even been compared to the work of Woody Guthrie and early Bob Dylan.
I’m not so sure. Maybe if Bob Dylan, in the middle of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ asked, ‘How many cheques can a single mom claim / Before we can force her to work?’ Maybe if Woody Guthrie, in the middle of a song about the Dust Bowl refugees, threw in a verse where he says they’re an invading horde of criminals and welfare cheats. That’s how they were portrayed by the ‘rich men’ at the time.
Two songs in one
‘Rich Men North of Richmond’ should really occupy two spots on the chart, not just one — because it’s two songs in one, two songs that contradict each other.
In one song, Anthony sings about overtime hours on bullshit pay, homeless people starving in the streets, and young people committing suicide. It’s all true and fuelled by this unequal and unfair society we live in. Who profits from the overtime hours and the bullshit pay? Who profits from homelessness? Anthony points the finger at rich men.
These are the kinds of things socialists have been saying for a long time — though oddly enough, the conservatives never praised or promoted us the way they did this song.
But then we come to the other song. It soon becomes clear that Anthony’s anger is not truly aimed at rich men. It’s not directed northward at Wall Street or the disconnectedness of the rich from the rural poor – but at liberal support for welfare.
Anthony hardly blames rich men at all — certainly not the rich men south of Richmond who inherited their wealth from their dads and grandads who segregated and lynched Black people. Richmond was the capital city of the Confederacy, the dystopian regime based on the rule of the racist slaveholders.
The racist trope of “welfare queens”
“Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat
And the obese milkin’ welfare”
The tactic of blaming (black) welfare recipients for white poverty is, unfortunately, nothing new. One of the politicians who flew to Epstein’s island, Bill Clinton, gutted welfare in the 1990s. Did this ‘welfare reform’ improve things for working people? No, its biggest effect was to push the disabled, the sick, the elderly and the oppressed into more ‘overtime hours on bullshit pay.’ Attacking people on welfare is a gigantic self-own for workers.
But we were not born yesterday: these lines stink of the ‘welfare queen’ trope — a disgusting caricature, particularly of poor Black women. Unsurprisingly, an array of misogynistic and racist reactionaries like Ben Shapiro have lauded the song.
“It’s a damn shame”
‘Rich Men North of Richmond’ is two songs in one. First, there’s the description of the misery and squalor of decaying US capitalism, with a raw expression of rage at the unbearable conditions. Working-class and poor people can change these conditions through strikes and protests, organising ultimately to take power from the wealthy — whether they live north, south, east or west of Richmond, Virginia.
But the other song cuts against that. It doesn’t point the finger at the rich, just one sub-set of the rich. Along with that, it gets in some vicious digs at working-class and poor people. If we all blame one another, that’s a great way for us to stay divided and miserable. That’s far from the authentic spirit of the folk protest song, and that’s a damn shame.